One of the most common allegations made against pro-lifers, specifically anti-abortion advocates, is that it is an example of a bunch of old white men trying to tell women what they can or can’t do with their bodies. This allegation calls up all the righteous indignation of feminism, autonomy, and moral outrage against those old white men that seem to be responsible for all of the evils in the world.
Of course this allegation is more of a stereotype than an argument. For one thing, it ignores all members of the prolife movement who are:
Which is a good portion of the prolife movement, actually.
Secondly, no reasonable person would dream of discounting someone else’s position simply because of age, race or gender. Imagine the outrage if, during a debate, a respondent dismissed his opponent’s remarks by saying, “You are young, black and female. You have nothing worth saying.” The world would explode, and rightly so. By the same token, “You are old, white and male” is not an adequate response to an argument.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the statement hinges upon a misrepresentation of the anti-abortion argument. The anti-abortion argument, as I understand it, rests upon the nature of the fetus. It maintains that because the fetus is a separate organism, its own body, it has a right to life.
The distinction is critical. If it were an issue of telling women what they can or can’t do with their bodies there are tons of other candidates. We could be seeking to outlaw contraception, body piercing, tattoos or plastic surgery. We could extend this to both genders and outlaw alcoholism, obesity, smoking, sedentary lifestyles, unsafe sexual practices etc. All of the above are either arguably or demonstrably unhealthy to varying degrees. They are not illegal, however. They are not illegal because of the principle of autonomy. We in our culture do not believe in legislating what people can do with their own bodies. (Of course we developed from a culture that did believe in doing that, hence the laws against suicide, etc.)
However, let’s take a look at the case of smoking. We do not outlaw smoking because we believe in the individual’s right to autonomy, to do what he likes with his body, even when it is patently and unequivocally bad for him. However, we do outlaw secondhand smoke in many areas, under the (rather specious) argument that secondhand smoke exposure harms other people.
The distinction, again, is important. You have a right to do whatever tomfool things you want to your own body, but you do not have the right to do things that will harm other bodies.
The abortion question is in the same boat as smoking. You may do as you like with your body under most circumstances. However, in the case of pregnancy, the context changes and there are now two bodies under consideration. The anti-abortion argument is that no one, not even the doctor or the mother, has the right to destroy another body, i.e. the body of the fetus.
This is why the abortion debate, as with all pressing debates in the public arena, cannot be reduced to catchphrases and memes. This discussion cannot be furthered in 140 characters or less without drastically oversimplifying and misunderstanding the other’s position.